One of my favorite stories of cross training success is of the legendary Joan Benoit Samuelson working out on a hand bike the day after having knee surgery, 17 days before the 1984 Olympic Trials. Joan is most famous for winning the inaugural women’s marathon gold medal later that summer in Los Angeles, but due to that surgery she was probably less sure about making the Olympic team that year than she was about winning the gold. Bob Kempainen’s is a remarkable story of training almost exclusively on a Nordic trainer and in the pool in his lead-up to winning the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials. These two Olympic stories highlight the value of using non-running exercise to improve or maintain fitness while injured, but there are other times cross training may play a constructive role in your training and the modality you choose can have a big impact on the benefits you derive.
There are numerous benefits to cross training, most notably, improving your aerobic capacity. The aerobic development you achieve through your long runs, tempo runs, and easy runs is done through improving your cardiovascular strength, lung capacity, and capillary bed density. Generally, your lungs and heart don’t know the difference between running and other aerobic exercise, which is why cross training can be such a powerful tool for developing aerobic fitness. However, it’s important to remember your muscles do know the difference, and for that reason a healthy runner shouldn’t look to replace running with cross training. The specificity of the activity is important and nothing will improve your running performances like running.
Incorporating cross training into your running routine can be beneficial to building your fitness whether you’re injured or simply looking for a different activity to keep you motivated and engaged. While injury is the most common reason runners utilize non-running exercise, many include cross training as part of their regular training routine. An important thing to remember when incorporating cross training into your running training is to make sure it isn’t detracting from your running. Typically, this means avoiding a hard cross training workout the day before a hard running workout or long run. The best way to incorporate cross training in your training is do it the day after your hard running workouts or long runs. If you’re training hard for a specific goal, you’re healthy, and running at your maximum volume, cross training should be done at a moderate intensity in order to facilitate recovery while still providing aerobic benefits.
Deep-water pool running is a cross training modality that is uniquely suited to facilitate recovery after a long run or hard workout and provide running specific benefits. The hydrostatic pressure of the water helps promote blood flow throughout the body, which can help relieve the heavy legged feeling coming off harder workouts. Additionally, when performed correctly pool running is the most running specific cross training workout you can do with zero impact. The key difference between deep-water pool running and something like cycling is you are able to mimic proper running technique, which can have a positive impact on your running form when you’re back on land.
While it is possible to have good technique in the pool without a flotation belt, it is incredibly challenging, and because proper technique is critical to maximizing the benefits you should use a floatation belt. In water deep enough you can’t touch the bottom, remain tall with your shoulders directly above your hips and ankles. The most common mistake is hunching your shoulders forward and pushing your hips back. The misconception that you’re working harder if you’re moving faster leads to this improper technique. With your hips back and shoulders forward you will cover more distance, but the hybrid run/swim motion that results doesn’t allow you to gain all the benefits of the exercise. With proper form you will move forward very slowly, but get a better running specific workout.
Perfect Running Form
Proper form is what sets pool running apart from other types of cross training. Stay tall in the water, drive your arms front to back, and pump your knees up and down. Because you have nothing to push off of in the water, the only difference with pool running is your feet won’t come up behind you. Otherwise perfect running form is the goal. Your knees should be driving up and down in front of your body with your feet “landing” directly under your hips. If you have a lower leg injury be cautious with pool running as the force of the water on the bottom of your foot can place stress on your calves and Achilles. If you notice tightness or pain an ElliptiGo or elliptical trainer would be a better fit than pool running.
You should to structure your workouts using high intensity intervals with short recovery. Because of the hydrostatic pressure it is difficult to elevate your heart rate in the pool, so using intense intervals will provide the best workout. The intervals should be short so you can stay focused on proper technique and maintaining high intensity. The rest should be very short because your heart rate will drop quickly in the water but your muscles still need some recovery from pushing all that water around. A typical pool workout could consist of intervals ranging from 15 seconds to 3 minutes with most of the intervals at 60 seconds or less. Because most pools have a big 60 second clock on the deck 60 second based workouts fit wonderfully. For example: 30 seconds hard followed by 30 seconds easy, 40 seconds hard followed by 20 seconds easy, 50 seconds hard followed by 10 seconds easy.
Whether you’re healthy and looking to add some variety to your routine or coming back from an injury, deep-water pool running is an excellent way to build and maintain fitness, and when done correctly can even improve your running form.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the March 2018 Issue of Running Journal